• Wandeth Gonzo

Ignaz Semmelweis

Updated: Oct 4

Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian physician who practiced in the maternity department of the Vienna General Hospital in the 1840s. Postpartum sepsis (puerperal fever) was a common occurrence and was almost invariably fatal. There were two maternity wards in the hospital, one where births were attended by medical students, and another where births were attended by midwives. The students often came directly from the dissecting rooms where they had been working with corpses with their bare hands. Puerperal fever was much more common in the ward tended by the medical students, but no one knew why.

A colleague of Semmelweis cut his hand while performing an autopsy and developed a similar clinical picture of overwhelming sepsis and died. Semmelweis began to wonder whether contagion could be carried on the hands and transferred to the women during childbirth.

He decided to require all attendants to wash their hands in chlorinated lime water before attending to a birth, and the rate of infection plummeted. Some were impressed by these findings, but others, including Semmelweis's superior, ignored them. In 1843 he presented a paper entitled "The Contagiousness Of Puerperal Fever" at the Boston Society for Medical Improvement advocated that Semmelweis was indeed accurate with this hypothesis.

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